Sundance Film Festival 2022 Review: Alice ★★★

Keke Palmer takes the titular role in Alice, the debut feature from writer-director Krystin Ver Linden which aims to position itself as a revisionist mash-up of slavery drama and blaxploitation picture. The result ends up feeling like it does neither time period setting justice, despite an incredibly watchable lead performance from Palmer.

Alice is enslaved in a Georgia plantation by brutal owner Mr Paul (an unrecognisable Jonny Lee Miller), after a build up of violent incidents and sexual abuse she escapes. Running through the rural wilderness, Alice stumbles upon a motorway, nearly colliding with the truck of driver-meets-activist Frank (Common) who informs her that the year is 1973. Alice educates herself on the Black Liberation movement and plots her return to the plantation to seek vengeance with a newfound sense of purpose.

Ver Linden‘s feature very much feels like two separate stories and her pulpy revisionist take of combining them makes thematic sense, but in action, never sits quite right. Opening depicting the brutal treatment of ‘domestics’ (as Mr Paul refers to them) on the plantations, Alice is near mute facing various forms of abuse and witnessing the cruelty forced upon her husband (Gaius Charles). Depicting the horrors that still occurred in USA even after the emancipation, Alice presents a grim depiction of the South with Director of Photography Alex Disenhof utilising a muted colour palette which suits the murky tone. Moss hanging from trees and a looming Georgia mansion surrounded by dense woodland present a South that will be familiar to anyone who has dipped into features exploring the period before. The mythical and supernatural connotations of the woodland is lightly hinted at, serving as a pre-cursor to the time-travel angle.

After multiple attempts, Alice finally escapes the plantation darting and diving through the dense woodland soundtracked to tense tribal drumbeats. Upon arriving at the other side Disenhof’s lens captures a brighter world – more vivid colours evocative of seventies funkiness. Alice then veers down the route of a displaced ‘fish out of water’ piece as the titular character begins screaming at cars, cautiously trying sandwiches for the first time, poking curiously at telephones, and looking awe-struck at magazine covers of Diana Ross. Ver Linden’s verging onto more comical notes does not sit quite right with the previously harrowing nature of Alice’s first time period adding to the overall mismatched vibe of the film.

With a score that feels influenced by classics of the Blaxploitation world, with rippling basslines and smooth funk, Common’s Frank soon introduces Alice to the likes of Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions and Diana Ross and The Supremes’ Reflections – and literally within no time she’s watching Pam Grier take on white tramps in Coffy and cutting of her braids and styling her own afro. Stylistically Ver Linden adds some traits of the Blaxploitation film such as split screen, making for an interesting novelty but sadly it makes us predominantly wish that she had simply stuck to depicting a story in this 1970s time period.

Whilst the revisionist take allowing the self-liberated slave the chance to educate herself and find her voice, subsequently going back to take on her oppressors, is a story that sounds empowering – the actuality does not quite hit these expected highs. Alice’s return to the plantation of the 1800s, complete with lines like “I am freedom!” and her own nifty little gun creates a blend that does not have momentum that it should have. The strange tonal fusing of these two eras is further highlighted by the arrival of fire engines which aim to tackle the flames of the plantation.

Whilst not quite reaching the lows of the similarly themed Antebellum, Alice is engaging enough but does not quite deliver the empowering highs its premise teases. It’s all rather tonally mismatched, but thankfully Keke Palmer is a truly engaging presence who invests us in this tale.

Alice plays as part of the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Find out more details here.

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